by Risa Nye
Foragers like Ava Chin search for edible prospects in unusual places — like parks and open spaces — that are fertile ground for often overlooked plant life. Those clusters of small green leaves and shoots popping up through the cracks in your neighborhood sidewalks — can you imagine plucking them to cook with later on? You will never look at sidewalk greenery in the same way after reading Eating Wildly. (via Amazon and Indiebound). [Also in this issue, we feature the recipe for Wild Green Pie from Eating Wildly.]
Chin takes us along as she explores the mysteries of the urban plant world — as well as of her own life. While the book is written as memoir, in part dealing with her search for the father who has been AWOL for nearly all of her life, Chin brings us on a foraging journey through the wilds of New York City’s Central and Prospect parks, searching for mushrooms, herbs, and a variety of edibles that she finds right under her nose.
At the beginning of her book, Chin quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “And what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Readers join Chin in her efforts to discover those virtues — and to create some recipes for, among other things, forgiveness.
The book’s chapters are set in the backdrop of the seasons. We begin in fall with a search for lamb’s-quarter, a “free-range weed that gardeners hate but food lovers consider a culinary and nutritional treasure.” Formally called Chenopodium album, the plant is high in vitamins and minerals and is related to spinach, beets, and quinoa. Chin quotes Michael Pollan, who calls lamb’s-quarter “one of the most nutritious weeds in the world.” Chin notes that when sautéed with a little extra-virgin olive oil, it “out-spinaches spinach in terms of pure green-y flavor.” Citing the long history of this so-called weed, which is sometimes referred to as white goosefoot and pigweed, Chin mentions that “the stomach of an excavated Iron Age man discovered in a bog in Grauballe, Denmark, contained the seeds of lamb’s-quarter….” Today, this plant grows in Brooklyn — and in just about any sunny spot where there is dirt.
Readers may wonder what Chin finds so appealing about foraging. What is it that drives her to grab her basket and head for the open spaces in search of the wild and tender leaves, the earthy mushrooms, and the pungent herbs often hiding in plain sight? In the opening chapter, she makes her strongest case for why she searches the city for the unclaimed bounty that no one tends to, no one owns, and only a few appreciate:
Foraging for food is a little like a mythic quest. You may think you know what you want and expend a lot of energy and dogged determination making lists and plans for obtaining it — losing a lot of sleep and garnering no small amount of heartache along the way — only to find it shimmering elsewhere, like a golden chalice, just out of reach.
In the seasons that I’ve spent searching for wild edibles, taking long walks as solace after a breakup, or searching for fruit-bearing trees after the death of a loved one, I’ve learned that nature has a way of revealing things in its own time, providing discoveries along the way — from morel mushrooms bursting through the soil to a swarm of on-the-move bees scouting out a new home. I’ve been lucky enough to meet other foragers on my journey: herbalists who’ve introduced me to the healing properties of common weeds like motherwort and stinging nettles; Asian ladies collecting ginkgoes, those stinky fruit that litter sidewalks every fall; expert and amateur mycologists, who’ve taught me how to make mushroom spore prints that resemble honeycomb and starbursts, and how to cook up my fungal finds into fragrant culinary wonders; burly beekeepers who’ve shown me the art of relocating honeybees safely in the city and given me tastes of the sweetest wild honey. It’s the unexpected bounty and regenerative powers of nature that have deepened my connection with my hometown, my family, and even myself, transforming old feelings of being ‘not good enough’ or ‘unworthy’ into new ways of seeing and being, like fresh wild asparagus or violets erupting from the earth every spring.
Chin’s earliest relationship with food begins at her grandparents’ house. She describes the sounds and aromas of a busy kitchen in mouth-watering detail, appealing to all the senses. According to members of her family, Chin “ate anything” her grandfather fed her, possibly including fish eyeballs. We tag along as she follows her grandparents through the aisles of local Chinese supermarkets, and here is where she learns “the secrets of the dried, preserved goods and vegetables tucked away in the stores’ dusty corners.” Good training for a budding forager searching for treasures that others may not see.
Braided into tales of her foraging in the city is Chin’s quest to find her long-lost father. She pulls no punches in the telling of this part of her story, painful and enraging as it is. Another thread in the book is Chin’s search for a committed relationship and a yearning for a family of her own. The act of foraging, she tells us, also provided a distraction from “the fact that I was single and in my late thirties, and thanks to my grandmother’s nagging reminders, the distinct feeling that I was running out of time.” And yet a third thread relates to Chin’s relationship with her mother and her grandparents, whose individual needs, wants, and senses of pride collide with her own. Again, Chin doesn’t shy away from the bitter truths she encounters, some of which seem even more bitter than the dark reddish-brown medicinal reishi tea she makes from these “incredibly woody and hard mushrooms.”
Sprinkled throughout the chapters of her deliciously detailed book, Chin shares recipes that utilize some of the more accessible results of her foraging. From motherwort to morels to mulberry trees, readers will learn about the variety of riches that can be found in the earth, season after season. Readers also learn about one woman’s journey to discover her heart’s desire while hunting for mushrooms.
Eating Wildly is a beautifully written book that encourages us to look both inward and outward, to forage knowledgeably, and to appreciate the unexpected in life and in nature.
Take a walk, be sure to look down, and see what grows in your neighborhood. You may have Ava Chin to thank for your dinner tonight.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.
All photos and illustrations, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Ava Chin.